Our recent panel discussion focused on how connection to nature is vital to our wellbeing. You can read an account of the discussion below.

In the access to nature panel discussion, garden designer and Gardeners’ Question Time regular, Matthew Wilson, chaired a panel that also included Louise Wyman, Strategic Director, Manchester City Council; Louise Clarke Head of Sustainable Places at Berkeley Group and Loyd Grossman, Chairman of Royal Parks.

Noting how distinct different people’s experiences of lockdown had been, Matthew Wilson first asked if what are the physical and mental benefits of bringing nature into the built environment might be across both the rural and urban scale..

“The last three to four months have demonstrated to us the importance of nature and has given the opportunity to connect with nature more,” Louise Clarke replied. “We need to ensure that as we build our future, our parks and nature are an integrated part of urban design. We all love our open parks where we can play, but we also need to think about the quieter places that are just as important for our mental health and wellbeing.”

“How can we seek to address the imbalance brought about by where you live and your relative wealth?” Matthew asked.

“Policy has been around densification,” Louise replied. “But if you have good urban design, you can increase the amount of open space. It’s about ensuring that you plan correctly, then intertwine the green space throughout the development so there’s enough space for people to walk and use that.”

Loyd Grossman urged the panel to remember that the pandemic has created lots of new issues but accelerated problems already, such as the privatisation and monetisation of the public realm.

As chairman of the Royal Parks, Loyd is well aware of the pressure of numbers, which has always been a real issue. “Parks must be open access,” he said. “But even before the pandemic, we have at least 77 million visitors a year, and that has gone up by 15–20% since the pandemic started. The closure by local authorities of some of their parks really concerned me because it put pressure not just on local people but also other areas.”

“The big issue is the pressure of numbers and the behavioural issue. We’ve seen a 50% increase in litter. We don’t want to fill the park with signage telling people what they can and can’t do because one of the essences of the park is to relax and enjoy what they do. So we’ve engaged in a social media campaign to ask people to treat the park as they would their own space and share in a more collegiate way. We’re launching the summer of kindness to show people what their obligations are.”

“And what role should local people be playing?” Matthew asked Louise Wyman.

“I wanted to reflect on the experience in Manchester,” Louise replied. “I see Manchester has a massive landscape. Landscape is a really good scale to think about the city. The responsibility of the director of development of growth is to curate and choreograph the green and blue of the city structure. We do it on behalf of the city and the people who live there. It’s the responsibility of city planners and urban thinkers to have connected green spaces. It’s what will keep people in our cities and attract them back to them. It’s important to our sense of humanity to have nature close to hand.”

“I think it’s about providing access to people really close to where they live and then having those different layers of different landscapes — your treelined streets that open up into a bigger park. It is about good design and thinking of that at early stages.”

“Royal parks are thought of as being islands that sit alone in the city scape,” Matthew continued, “but it’s that connection that’s going to help things move forward in a more radical way.”

“This discussion seems to have assumed that the real problem is access to green spaces in cities,” Loyd replied. “But there are a lot of people in rural places who do not have access to open spaces. This is not just a city problem. The national issue is how do we ensure people have access to open space wherever they live, whether suburb or rural.”

“And how do we make change?” Matthew asked.

“We make change by endlessly banging on about it,” Loyd replied. “I don’t think it’s an argument that can be won on quantitative terms. The more important message is the psychological, the spiritual, the citizenship value of common places, of places where everyone is welcome, that are open to the public 365 days a year. We are in a situation where the economy has fallen off a cliff and parks are not free. We have a real issue about how we maintain sufficient funding to ensure we maintain royal parks.”

Louise Wyman commented how the pandemic had caused us to prioritise public health above the economy for once. “We’ve already taken a decision to put health first. Now we have to ask: how are we using the limited resources we have well? And what are the models for the future?”

“What is public health?” Loyd asked. “Is it having access to culture? Beauty? Heritage? All the things worth living?”

Housebuilders came under criticism from the audience, one of whose members asked how small rural towns who don’t have the infrastructure to implement a town plan fend off huge housebuilders.

Louise Clarke replied: “Good housebuilding is about community engagement and understanding what the local community wants and needs in that area, whether it’s open space or access to nature, that should be a benefit that the development can bring. Not only the new people who are going to buy the properties can enjoy but the existing community. In one of our rural locations, we’ve put up sports pitches and a local community centre.”

“We’re seeing a lot of movement around retrofit now, so how can the development community help us think about market towns?” Louise Wyman continued. “We’re going to see a lot of empty shops and office blocks. Innovation hubs in former retail units. How do we revitalise our towns? We still have a housing crisis that we’re not talking about.”

Another audience member asked that the panel thought of access to open space in a virtual sense, given that Minecraft had over 480 million users in 2019.

“It’s a wonderful idea for those who don’t have physical access,” Loyd replied. “But we don’t know if it will provide the same benefits as physical access, and until we do we shouldn’t go any further.”

Finally, the discussion turned to what we as individuals can do to help green our towns and cities.

“I think there’s some guerrilla gardening we can all do,” replied Louise, who has sewn seeds into the cracks outside her own house.

“At Woodberry Down, the London Wildlife Trust were the experts, but we got the local community in to help work there,” Louise Clarke added. “Those models of trying to get community involved so they have greater ownership is one we really want to encourage and develop.”